Last Thursday morning, the publisher John O’Brien put out a cigarette and walked into the Washington Square Hotel for breakfast, where he greeted William H. Gass. The novelist was reading The New York Times and eating a bagel and fruit with his wife, Mary.
“You never know who you’ll run into,” Mr. O’Brien said. They were both in town for the National Book Critics Circle Awards that evening. Mr. Gass would be presenting Dalkey Archive Press, the outfit Mr. O’Brien started in 1984 in the paradoxically named town of Normal, Ill., with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1995, Dalkey published Mr. Gass’ second and most difficult novel, The Tunnel, a dense, rambling monologue of more than 650 pages that begins with a history professor sitting down to write a short introduction for his magnum opus, a book about the Third Reich, that deteriorates into an encyclopedic personal history. Mr. Gass smiled and the two wondered how they would get to the ceremony. They pondered the rain. They would take a cab.
Dalkey was initially a humble extension of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, the critical journal Mr. O’Brien founded as a way to talk about authors who, like Mr. Gass (as a novelist, not so much as a critic), were overlooked by most of the academy for being too difficult, too self-conscious, too much of a trickster. With Dalkey, Mr. O’Brien set out to keep these authors in print. The subject of The Review‘s first issue was Gilbert Sorrentino and included an interview with the author by Mr. O’Brien that predicted Dalkey’s aesthetic. “It doesn’t seem to me that fiction should take the place of reality,” Sorrentino told Mr. O’Brien. “The idea of the mirror being held up to life is a very remote one as far as my fictional thinking goes. The point of art is literally the making of something that is beautiful, the making of something that works.” Since then, the press has become a touchstone of independent publishing. Its list now includes at least 50 new titles annually, more than half of which are translations. (Only 3 percent of the output of the publishing industry at large comprises books originating from languages other than English.) Mr. O’Brien has done nothing less than give a voice to an otherwise unspoken thread of contemporary fiction.
“It’s not that I don’t believe in canons,” Mr. O’Brien, who is 65 years old, said, sitting down at a table with The Observer. “It’s just that I believe in our canon.”
When Mr. O’Brien was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, he was submitting to academic journals articles about then obscure authors like Douglas Woolf, Flann O’Brien, Robert Creeley and Gilbert Sorrentino–who had called Mr. O’Brien’s attention to many of these writers in the first place. At best, the response he would get was, “There’s no currency here”; at worst, “We don’t know who that is.” One day, when the writer and critic Paul Metcalf, who died in 1999, was visiting Mr. O’Brien’s home outside Chicago, the pair lamented the lack of discussion about their favorite writers. They thought, “These writers deserve a journal of their own.” Within a year, Mr. O’Brien compiled the first issue of The Review, devoted to the work of Sorrentino. Creeley was the first person to agree to contribute.
“I mapped out five years for it,” Mr. O’Brien said. “And I decided, since I had started this with really no money whatsoever, that it would last for five years and become completely broke and then it would fold and become one of those magazines that people would say, ‘Hey, whatever became of. …’ And I thought that was fine. Five years is a good run.”
Twenty-seven years later and The Review is still mapping out what Mr. O’Brien calls a “constellation” of authors, an alternative canon. More recent issues have included “Writing from Postcommunist Romania” and “The Cuban Fiction Issue”; a forthcoming issue about failure addresses such themes as “Should I Kill Myself and How?” and “The Internet as Consolation.” Guest editor Joshua Cohen put the issue together with essays by Helen DeWitt, Jesse Ball and Sam Frank.
“John O’Brien has balls the size of a Henry James sentence,” Mr. Cohen told The Observer. “American literature has no better foundation.”
The first original book Dalkey published was Where Do You Put the Horse?, a collection of critical essays by Metcalf, who happened to be the great-grandson of another writer on the outskirts of what was fashionable in his time, Herman Melville. Mr. O’Brien said the connection between publishing and criticism is “absolute.” The very act of publishing a book with the press carries the heavy significance of “a Dalkey book,” though Mr. O’Brien still isn’t exactly sure what that means. Certain terms get tossed around–experimental, postmodern, avant-garde–but Mr. O’Brien likes what he likes. He prefers the term “subversive.” He has still published plenty of “conventional” novels in terms of content and style. And some works–Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a few books by Hubert Selby, the National Book Award-winning Voices from Chernobyl–have raised the question from his staff, “Is this a Dalkey book?” when placed beside books by Mr. Gass and Sorrentino or younger writers like Ben Marcus and Aleksander Hemon.
Pigeonholing Dalkey is as difficult as summarizing The Tunnel. Flann O’Brien, whose final novel gave the press its name and whose work is now a part of its list, is a case in point. The Dalkey Archive is a comedy in the tradition of Moll Flanders or Tristram Shandy, a novel that is a parody of the whole genre. In a climactic scene that recalls Laurence Sterne’s diagram that attempts–and fails–to make sense of the plot in Tristram Shandy, James Joyce appears as a character–long believed to be dead–to tell us Ulysses was a “collection of smut” and denies writing it. Mr. O’Brien has been a champion of this kind of fuck-you writing since the beginning of his career. He wishes there was more of it.
“We’re in a strange time in which art is marginalized in public practices,” he said. “The best thing that could happen for art in this country–I’m half-serious in saying this–is that censorship would be imposed. Art would suddenly come through a level of awareness that I don’t think it has in contemporary America, especially literature. We had a critic take issue recently with a book who said, ‘The problem with this book is the characters are not likable.’ Was Raskolnikov likable? I mean, would you like to live next door to Hamlet? That should be the first act of censorship: Characters cannot be likable for 25 years. And no happy endings.”
Just before the National Book Critics Circle Awards began, Mr. O’Brien stood by the stage with Mr. Gass and Steve Kellman, a critic and NBCC board member. They were discussing the presentation of the award.
“I’m gonna be brief,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Tell some great anecdotes,” he said to Mr. Gass. “Or make something up.”
“Or you could just give a plot summary of The Tunnel,” Mr. Kellman said.
“You could read The Tunnel,” Mr. O’Brien said. Mr. Gass guffawed. “We’re in the second edition of it now.”
Mr. Gass flashed a look of sincere disbelief. “Really?” he said.
A voice came from the speakers to inform the literary cognoscenti, which was starting to seep in through the doors, wet with rain, what to do in case of a fire. Jonathan Franzen took a seat quietly near the front. Patti Smith walked down the aisle with a cup of coffee from a deli. Jennifer Egan was all smiles sitting next to her husband.
“Everybody scream and run!” Mr. Gass said.
“You’re all going to die,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Isn’t that the real message here?”
“That would be it for the contemporary literary cul
ture of America,” said Mr. Kellman.
A few moments later, everyone was seated and Mr. Kellman introduced Dalkey, calling it “a canon of American avant-garde.” Mr. Gass sauntered up to the stage, first thanking God he did not fall and praying for a safe trip back down.
“There are a surprising lot of us many find strange to this land,” he said. “We have come to Dalkey, some of us, to escape. To find readers worthy of our words, if I may brag bag loads, although we are modest under normal circumstances–retired, shocked, unread even by friends. Dalkey Archive’s list is a banner of victory. It stands for a war that John O’Brien fought almost by himself to keep these books in print in a language we were willing to read. To get some of them read. To teach us, as that scoundrel Columbus did, how wide the literary world is, how stocked with artistic offenses we have, before now, refused to acknowledge.”
Mr. O’Brien stood before the publishing elite, smiled and listened to the applause. It was the kind of happy ending he could accept.